Books

Escapist Reading: Putting the Adult in Young Adult

The life of a 10th grade literature teacher frequently involves slogging through some pretty crappy fiction to appreciate students’ points of view.

I was caught reading one of the Twilight books on an airplane -- caught by a woman who was clearly over 50 and actually wanting to discuss it in great detail. She’s read all the books and is totally into them, and where was I in this book and has so-and-so confronted so-and-so yet, and who was my favorite character, et cetera. There were a couple of moments when I was completely disgusted by the breadth and depth of her enthusiasm for this book series. But hey, I was also reading the book, so how could I be annoyed with her for having chosen the same book as me?

Answer: I am a teacher. I was not reading Twilight because I cared much at all about its contents. In fact, I was pretty sure it had very little to offer me in terms of content; the writing wasn’t particularly insightful either.

This book was on my to-do list because there were a half dozen girls in my fourth period class who were obsessed with it. And while I have no personal stake in the merits of Team Jacob over Team Edward, I have a tremendous personal stake in this bunch of girls in my English class. The life of a 10th grade literature teacher frequently involves run-ins with books that are not part of the curriculum. These books are part of the social fabrics by which students build their lives. If I want to understand the things my students care about, the way they are beginning to frame their values independently of their parents, the way they view injustice in the world—well, I have to slog through some pretty crappy fiction to appreciate my students’ points of view.

It all began with Harry Potter. A student looked me dead in the eye and said, “are you a Slytherin, or what?” Now, I had no idea at the time that Slytherin was the magic school’s dorm devoted to less than ethical practitioners of the dark arts. But I could tell by the way she spat it at me that this girl was trying to insult me. So I Googled it and quickly discovered that the series was too many books deep in a world with too many complex premises for me to really get a grip on the nuance of what gave my student offense in the first place. The next day I said to her, “I looked it up, and I understand that Slytherin has a negative connotation to you. If I want to understand more about the house of Slytherin, which of the Harry Potter books should I read?”

The student was completely taken aback, for several reasons. One, it’s possible she did not really know what “negative connotation” meant. Two, I had simply researched it, thereby making use of the strategy that I am constantly telling them to utilize when they face unknowns and effectively practicing what I preach. Three, she was likely unused to adults asking her for reading recommendations in any serious manner. So she told me what book to read, and read it I did. I also read the book concluding the series, just to see if things turned out a little better for the folks living in the house of Slytherin.

As it happens, Professor Snape, the head of the house of Slytherin, turns out to be an extremely noble and dedicated servant to the cause of righteousness, who had for several thousand pages by that time been pretending to be the world’s worst evil-doer. So I took that knowledge back to the kid and said, “what do you make of this? How do you feel about Snape making these great sacrifices, pretending to be a big bad dude, just to swoop in and save the day at the end of the series when it really counts? Do you think I’m that type of Slytherin character, or a genuinely rotten apple, like Draco Malfoy?” Well, this kid smiled the biggest smile I’d ever seen from her, and she stayed during her lunch period to tell me all about how she thought she was a Ravenclaw, but when you really get right down to it I was her favorite teacher because she and I were both a lot like Hermione Granger.

Later, there was another kid reading Ready, Player One. He was a nerd king, lugging around this novel as big as some of the textbooks that he never wanted to open in class. I’d say flip to this or that page, and out would come his personal reading material. As an English teacher, I struggle with telling any kid to put any book away. Many kids who read so voraciously on their own do not need me to teach them one more Poe story or whatever. Sometimes I can engage kids in their own interests and they’ll just tell me all about their books, but this kid was extremely introverted and had very low socialization skills. If I tried to engage him on the book directly, it’d spook him. So I sneakily went to the library and checked out the first half of the audiobook. Then I listened to about three or four hours or it during my commute for a week, getting the general sense of what this kid might be digging about this particular book.

As it turns out, he was just an old-school sci-fi and video gaming geek. The book was sprinkled everywhere with references to Star Trek, Atari, and the like. I didn’t attempt to discuss the book with him. I just quietly revamped my lesson plan to include a gaming activity, with points not only for accuracy but also for speed. It was similar to a contest that some of the characters in his book were going through, and I knew he would be able to recognize the strategy needed to beat the game as the same one presented in his book. Never in my life had that student been so loud and made so much eye contact with his peers as the day I piloted that activity in our classroom.

The other kids at his table were shocked, then a little freaked out to learn how smart he was, then they gleefully sat back and watched as the nerd king led their table to a crushing victory over the four other teams in the class. Two or three of them even smiled at him when they sat down the next day, including one actual female. He never directly acknowledged it with me, but a couple days later I got an email from his mom, saying he wouldn’t shut up about it when he got home from school and thanking me for cracking his shell open just a little bit for just one minute.

Then came The Hunger Games trilogy, and quick on its heels, the Divergent trilogy. Dystopian novels are the stock and trade of young adult fiction, for obvious reasons. My gaggle of fifteen-going-on-sixteen students generally see the world as black and white to a significant degree: Adults make rules, the rules always suck, and some thinking outside the box must take place in the name of freedom and justice for all under the age of eighteen. All of these books employ a motif of escape. Generally, the protagonists succeed in accomplishing their escape, so the ending of any of these series turns out fairly hopefully.

Kids need that. Better that they should enjoy the escape possible within their novel than just continue to feel trapped by their personal real world version of dystopia. I don’t want to be the face of their dystopia, their soul-crushing unreasoned adult juggernaut, an emissary of the system they despise. I need to know how to help them escape. These books teach them decision-making skills, ways to manage their own sense of risk and evaluate their own willingness to make sacrifices. As a teacher, I can work with that. These books are on my team, so I better look closely at what’s in them.

I regularly read young adult novels like the Twilight or Divergent series, which adults generally classify as guilty pleasures. As if there is nothing left for us to learn from lusty teenage angst and sledge hammeringly obvious symbolism. It was the expression of love for these books by another adult with no student-driven mission in sight that kind of made me queasy. I do it because I'm a high school English teacher trying to stay current with the common cultural narratives of my teenage audience. Constantly I'm telling parents that if you want to know what your kids are thinking or feeling, read their books.

Teens have a different canon and adults need not only a language with which to respect it, but enough comprehension of the content to have deep discussions about it. The references in these young adult books permeate the culture of our young adults, then that culture grows into our collective future. These books identify what will one day sway their votes, how they will one day raise their own children, what shape their ideal society will take. I mean, if you don’t think it matters to your child’s future whether they consider Jacob or Edward the moral center of the Twilight universe, forget about trying to engage them in a serious discussion about the characterization of Jesus or Obama. I meet the kids where they’re at. More adults should, and they shouldn’t feel guilty about it.



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